For the first time this year, Jim Murphy had a slot at the Edinburgh Festival, sharing a fringe platform with a comedian friend. His subject was the 100 venue tour in which he set up his Irn Bru crates on Scottish street corners to deliver the gospel of the Better Together campaign.
As if to belie the seriousness of the subject, Murphy’s stories are in large part whimsy. Those he encountered included a horse wearing a Yes blanket and the seagull whisperer of Oban, who claimed to have used his mystic powers to summon a flock of birds to defecate on the speaker’s head (“But he did have a bag of chips behind his back”). In a break from the campaign trail, he also encountered a Glasgow hen night.
“I was having a pizza with my brother, and at the table next door was a hen party. They were drinking tequila, the bride-to-be had a necklace of condoms round her neck, they were all pissed, and they were debating the merits of a currency union.”Murphy took this
exchange as a sign of how the referendum campaign had sparked public passions and energised debate. Others might wonder whether the drunken hens were more persuasive on the subject of Scotland’s fiscal future than the distinguished economists of the No campaign, who so dangerously failed to make their case.
We meet on a Friday in Westminster, a little under a fortnight before the referendum. With the polls tightening (though not yet neck and neck) and the future of Britain’s 300 year union in grave doubt, political careers and reputations are also uncertain. While Gordon Brown has since emerged as the unlikely standard-bearer of the No campaign, Jim Murphy – win or lose – has also fought a memorable bout.
Pictures of Labour’s soapbox orator, spattered with egg and shouting above a baying crowd, became emblematic of a campaign in which Murphy refused to give way to mounting Nationalist threats. “One angry Nat became a crowd of angry Nats, with ordinary voters walking by because they thought it was a streetfight.” Even after the arch-egger was arrested by the police, forcing Murphy to pause his tour in the interests of public safety, he remained sanguine.“People throw eggs at politicians. For me it was just a dry cleaning bill. That’s all.”
For all the No campaign’s macro-economic messiahs, such as Alistair Darling and even Brown, Murphy seems the only Westminster politician to have sensed and seized the public mood.“It’s nice of you to say that, but people have been trying hard and playing their part.” With little cut-through, I suggest. “Gordon’s done a brilliant job. Alistair is in a unique position to head a non-partisan cam- paign. Only he could do that. I don’t have the patience, and neither would Gordon.”
Should Darling rejoin Labour’s Westminster front line? “Alistair is brilliant. He has his critics [but] I’m not one. I’m close to being his number one fan. He’s a proper, mature, grown-up politician. I don’t know whether he’ll want a wee break afterwards.”Any return by Darling would presumably be contingent on a unionist victory. But as Murphy says:“If we don’t win, none of us is coming back.”
While Murphy never publicly countenanced a Yes majority, with the consequent loss, in 2016, of 41 Scottish Labour MPs on the current count, he must privately have assessed what defeat would mean.“I don’t think anyone would have to resign, whether it’s David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Alistair Darling, me. It’s this huge debate about the future of our country – not about one individual. Win, lose or draw, we’re going to have to make it work.”
Long before Murphy succeeded, in a way that many colleagues could not, in touching at least some part of the emotional heart of Scotland, the rumour was that he might (assuming the union survived) aspire to become the Labour leader in Scotland. Does he see himself in that role?
“I’m a Glaswegian. I love my city, and – if I wasn’t doing this – I would do whatever I could to help lead Glasgow. I’m not saying I want to be leader of the city council, but I have a civic patriotism about Glasgow. Despite the sectarianism and [other] problems, I love Glasgow like nowhere else in the world. I want to be in Ed Miliband’s cabinet – that’s the truth. [But] I want to play a big part in Scotland. After devolution, Westminster MPs backed off too much.”
Murphy’s fealty to the leader has, some might think, been ill-repaid. Miliband, having declared his aversion to sofa government conducted by small cartels, is said to have sidelined his then defence spokesman over the question of possible Syrian intervention.
In a blog published shortly after Labour decided, like the Tories, that parliament would not be consulted on the issue again, Murphy broke ranks to note that the Labour verdict had provoked some anxiety“and I share it.” As a supporter of the initial Labour amendment that “explicitly didn’t rule out military action if certain stringent conditions were met”, Murphy proclaimed himself uneasy that this conditions-based stance had switched to“an unconditional policy of UK military inaction.”
Not long afterwards, David Miliband’s former joint campaign manager was removed from the defence job – one that he is said to have requested – and given the DfID brief in a Miliband reshuffle termed the ‘purge of the Blairites’. Surely it must have been galling for him, as the only senior figure to stand up against a disquieting decision, to have been so treated?
“In politics, as in football, the manager picks the team. You get a choice in politics – you either go with the manager’s decision or you don’t. Ed’s in charge of the team, so whatever position he wants me to play.” Murphy does not, however, resile from the stance he took. “I agreed with every word Ed said in his speech, which was [to support] a conditions-based approach. You can’t give carte blanche [for military action] or walk away from responsibilities. I thought what Ed was trying to achieve was right, and I know him well enough to know he’s not an isolationist. If we win the election – and I think we can and dearly hope we will – I think he’ll lead a genuinely principled government which takes its responsibilities seriously.”
Those responsibilities would surely be focused on the rise of the Islamic State and its sway in Syria and Iraq. During his time at defence, Murphy produced a nuanced line on how to deal with terror. Preventative intervention, his formula for blending hard and soft power, was – he argued then – the best means of rendering the world a safer place. “I don’t know the full answer [on Isil]. No one does. The argument I made then is that we know where some of the worst trouble spots are and will be.”
The common traits he cites in breeding grounds for jihadism are poor “access to food and water, ungoverned space, porous borders. Rather than get involved in military conflict, surely it makes sense to get involved in preventative intervention. [What is needed
is] careful diplomacy and world class development, not military prowess.” That creed, which Murphy is pursuing in his new brief, may forestall future mayhem but, in the present, Isil demands more immediate action. Would he support military intervention within a broad coalition?
“We learn from the intervention in Iraq and from the non-intervention in Syria, as well as Afghanistan. But this is more complicated than any.” Does Murphy regret his decision to vote for the Iraq invasion? “There’s a standard political answer to that, which is that if we had known then what we know now, we wouldn’t have done it. But we didn’t know. We voted clear-eyed but with the wrong information. I don’t blame anyone for that. It’s not Tony Blair’s fault.”
While this exculpation of all concerned is unlikely to convince those who always opposed the action, Murphy is far more cautious this time round.“You cannot solve it [the Isil ascendancy] without regional buy-in. It cannot be sorted from London or Washington. From whatever height or distance, you cannot dictate what happens next. You cannot have a kneejerk response in favour of bombing. You need a degree of regional coalitions that we have come nowhere close to building yet. I am not advocating that Britain gets involved in military action in Syria or Iraq. You have to be much clearer what the consequences are.”
Does that mean he would vote against air strikes, were a parliamentary vote to be called? “I have no idea. I don’t know what the circumstances or conditions will be; we don’t know there will be such a vote. But it’s not about acting here and now – it’s about doing the right thing. A Commons vote is wholly speculative. No request has been made [by America for UK assistance.] And parliament would have to be consulted.”
Murphy’s prospectus for conflict prevention not only fits neatly into his new portfolio. It may also attract ample financing given Labour’s pledge to maintain the develop- ment budget at 0.7 per cent of GNP. How does Murphy, as a deficit hawk, propose to use that largesse and dispel the worries of voters who think the money would be better spent at home?
“I’ve talked to Ed Balls a lot, and there’s things we can do. Climate change is a big driver of inequality, and we could do much more with DECC (the Department for Energy and Climate Change). DfID is one of the most empowering jobs in any Labour government, and we don’t celebrate its remarkable power. We’re spending more and more money on development and trying to build a beltway consensus.
“When I knock on doors, people tell me their mum can’t get into a care home or their son can’t get an apprenticeship. These are people who give to Comic Relief or earthquake appeals out of their earned income, but there’s scepticism [about government aid]. We’re in danger of losing the argument we’re not making. Global altruism won’t get us far enough. You’ve got to have a national interest argument. Climate change is coming to get us, and we have to look at the cause.
“So the argument goes – ‘Mrs Smith, I know your son can’t get an apprenticeship. But that’s not DfID’s fault. There are means he will grow up in a safer world.’” Murphy’s conviction that this argument will sway sceptics says much about his confidence. Optimism, in his view, is mounting among a Labour shadow cabinet convinced (at least until the spectre of Scottish independence appeared) that the tide was turning their way.
“What’s happening in the world is a cloud over our heads, but on domestic politics there’s a real confidence within the Labour party that Cameron can be a one-term prime minister. Ed is always confident – that’s one of his great strengths – but he has good reason to be optimistic at the moment. Europe appears inexplicably to be devouring the Conservative party.”
In addition, he believes that the vote to back the Lib Dem private member’s bill against the bedroom tax, carried by an alliance of Lib Dem and Labour MPs, marked the last gasp of the coalition. As for the 70 Tory MPs who stayed away, he believes many were too ashamed to vote against abolition.
“At one of my surgeries, there was a dad who’d come with his son and daughter. He said he couldn’t pay his bills, but that if he moved, his kids would lose their friends. And then he started crying. MPs of all parties are getting that, and you have to be a stone-hearted individual not to react.
“Lib Dem MPs are now looking at the coalition through a rear view mirror. That [vote for the bill] was a big moment. There was a genuine mood of détente – not among the Lib Dem leadership, but MPs were going out of the way to make conversation with Labour MPs to whom they hadn’t spoken for two years.”
In the light of such a rapprochement, is Murphy receptive to the idea of a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, should his party fall short of an overall majority? “We’ve worked with them – and with the Tories – on Better Together. But you go in to win. It’s like football. You don’t go into a match planning a draw unless you’re facing Lionel Messi – and David Cameron isn’t Lionel Messi. You make a success of whatever result the public gives you. But we’re looking for a win, not a high-scoring draw.”
As a diehard Celtic fan, Murphy knows all too well that, in football as in politics, no scoreline is ever predictable.
This article was originally published in the Autumn edition of the Fabian Review